The Avengers versus Thanos


By Jim Starlin, Mike Friedrich, Steve Englehart, Steve Gerber, Scott Edelman, Don Heck, Bob Brown, John Buscema, Mike Zeck & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6850-8

With another Marvel Cinematic Universe film scoring big around the world, here’s a timely trade paperback and eBook edition to augment the celluloid exposure and cater to movie fans wanting to follow up with a comics experience that fills in all the gaps.

After Marvel mainstays Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby left the company, the burgeoning publisher brought in a raft of young newcomers to fill the void. One of the most successful of these was Jim Starlin who especially rose to the occasion by masterminding a vast and sprawling cosmic epic using a constantly failing property various stalwarts of the House of Ideas could not make a hit…

Captain Marvel was an alien on Earth, a defector from the militaristic Kree empire who fought for Earth and was atomically bonded to professional sidekick Rick Jones by a pair of wristbands allowing them to share the same space in our universe. When one was here, the other was trapped in the antimatter dimension designated the Negative Zone.

After meandering around the Marvel Universe for a while, continually one step ahead of cancellation (the series had folded many times, but always quickly returned – primarily to secure the all-important trademark name), Mar-Vell was handed to Starlin – and the young craftsman was left alone to get on with it.

With many of his fellow neophytes he began laying seeds (particularly in Iron Man, Sub-Mariner and Daredevil) for a saga that would in many ways become as well-regarded as the Jack Kirby Fourth World Trilogy that inspired it.

However, the Thanos War, despite many superficial similarities, would soon develop into a uniquely modern experience. And what it lacked in grandeur it made up for with sheer energy and enthusiasm…

Spanning February 1973-September 1974, this grandiose compendium (available in Trade Paperback and eBook editions) gathers and chronologically collates Iron Man #55, Captain Marvel #25-33, Marvel Feature #12, Daredevil #105-107, Avengers #125, Warlock #9-11 and 15, Avengers Annual #7, Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2 and concludes with a pertinent back-up from Logan’s Run #6 (June 1977: re-presenting Starlin’s entire early development of and engagement with one of comicbooks’ most popular villains.

The artistic iconoclasm began in Iron Man #55 (February 1973) where Mike Friedrich scripted Starlin’s opening gambit in a cosmic epic that would change the nature of Marvel itself.

Inked by Mike Esposito, ‘Beware… Beware… Beware the … Blood Brothers!’ introduces formidable and obsessive Drax the Destroyer; an immensely powerful humanoid trapped under the Nevada desert and in dire need of rescue by even more potent extraterrestrial invader Thanos

That comes when the Armoured Avenger blazes in, answering a mysterious SOS, but only after brutally dealing with the secret invader’s bombastic and brutal underlings…

All this is merely a prelude to the main story which starts unfolding a month later in Captain Marvel #25, courtesy of Friedrich, Starlin, & Chic Stone, wherein Thanos unleashes ‘A Taste of Madness!’, changing exiled Mar-Vell’s fortunes forever…

When Mar-Vell is ambushed by a pack of extraterrestrial assassins, he is forced to admit that his powers have been in decline for some time. Unaware that an unseen foe is counting on that, Rick manifests from the Negative Zone to check in with sagacious scientific maverick Dr. Savannah, only to find himself accused by the savant’s daughter (and Rick’s beloved) Lou-Ann of her father’s murder…

Hauled off to jail, Rick brings in Mar-Vell who is suddenly confronted by a veritable legion of old foes before deducing who in fact his true enemies are…

Issue #26 then sees Rick freed from police custody to confront Lou-Ann over her seeming ‘Betrayal!’ (Starlin, Friedrich & Dave Cockrum). Before long, though, he and Mar-Vell realise they are the targets of psychological warfare: the girl is being mind-controlled whilst Super Skrull and his hidden “Masterlord” are manipulating them and others in search of a lost secret…

When a subsequent scheme to have Mar-Vell murder The Thing spectacularly fails, Thanos takes personal charge. The Titan is hungry for conquest and needs Rick because his subconscious conceals the location of an irresistible ultimate weapon.

Rick awakens to find himself ‘Trapped on Titan!’ (Pablo Marcos inks) not realising the villain has already extracted the location of a reality-altering Cosmic Cube from him. Rescued by Thanos’ hyper-powered father Mentor and noble brother Eros, the horrified human lad sees first-hand the extent of the genocide the death-loving monster has inflicted upon his own birthworld. Appalled and angry, Rick summons Captain Marvel to wreak vengeance…

Meanwhile on Earth, still-enslaved Lou-Ann has gone to warn the Mighty Avengers and summarily collapsed. By the time Mar-Vell arrives in #28 she lies near death. ‘When Titans Collide!’ (inks by Dan Green) reveals another plank of Thanos’ plan.

As the heroes are picked off by psychic parasite The Controller, the Kree Captain is assaulted by bizarre visions of an incredibly ancient being. Fatally distracted, he becomes the malevolent mind-leech’s latest conquest…

Al Milgrom inks ‘Metamorphosis!’ as Mar-Vell’s connection to Rick is severed before the Kree exile is transported to an otherworldly locale where a grotesque eight billion-year-old being named Eon reveals the origins of universal life whilst overseeing the abductee’s forced evolution into an ultimate warrior: a universal champion gifted with the subtly irresistible power of Cosmic Awareness

Subsequently returned to Earth and reconnected to his frantic atomic counterpart, the newly-appointed “Protector of the Universe” confronts The Controller, thrashing the monumentally powerful brain-parasite in a devastating display of skill countering exo-skeletal super-strength in #30’s ‘…To Be Free from Control!’

Iron Man, meanwhile, has recovered from a previous Controller assault and headed for Marvel Feature #12 to join Ben Grimm in ending a desert incursion by Thanos’ forces before enduring ‘The Bite of the Blood Brothers!’ (Friedrich, Starlin, & Joe Sinnott), after which the story develops through the unseeing eyes of San Francisco-based swashbuckler Daredevil.

In DD #105, Matt Murdock has realised his new boss Kerwin Broderick has been sabotaging the attorney’s cases, and even hired warped mercenary Sergei Kravinoff AKA Kraven the Hunter to crush Daredevil’s investigative interference. When Kraven abducts his lover The Black Widow, the hero tries to save her but is thrown to his death over a cliff…

Natasha brutally avenge her man’s murder, but Murdock is far from dead, having being teleported from the jaws of doom by a ‘Menace from the Moons of Saturn!’ (scripted by Steve Gerber with art by Don Heck & Don Perlin).

In a short sequence pencilled by Starlin, the earthborn Priestess of Titan reveals how she had been dispatched to Earth to counter the schemes of death-worshipping proto-god Thanos.

Here the formerly enigmatic and emotionless super scientist Madame MacEvil shares her origins and foreshadows her future role in the cosmic catastrophe to come.

When Thanos killed her family, the infant Heather Douglas was adopted by Mentor, taken to Titan and reared by psionic martial artists of the Shao-Lom Monastery. Years later when Thanos attacked Titan and destroyed the monks she swore revenge and took a new name… Moondragon.

She also inadvertently discloses how she had innocently allied with a respected man of power and authority, providing him with a variety of augmented agents such as Dark Messiah, Ramrod and Angar …in fact all the menaces who have recently dogged the Man Without Fear…

Gerber, Heck & Trapani then brought the expansive sidebar saga closer to culmination as the manipulator is unmasked in ‘Life Be Not Proud!’ but not before the wily plotter redeploys all his past minions, shoots his misguided ally Moondragon, usurps a Titanian ultimate weapon and unleashes a life-leeching horror dubbed Terrex upon the world.

With all Earth endangered, DD, the Widow and guest-star Captain Marvel are forced to pull out all the stops to defeat the threat, and only then after a last-minute defection by the worst of their enemies and a desperate ‘Blind Man’s Life!’ courtesy of Gerber, Bob Brown & Sal Buscema.

Inked by Green & Milgrom, Captain Marvel #31 announces ‘The Beginning of the End!’ as the Avengers – in a gathering of last resort – are joined by psionic priestess Moondragon and Drax: revealed as one more of Thanos’ victims but one recalled from death by supernal forces to hunt and destroy the deranged Titan…

Thanos is then revealed as a lover of the personification of Death: determined to gift her Earth as a betrothal present. To that end he uses the Cosmic Cube to turn himself into ‘Thanos the Insane God!’ (Green inks) who, with a casual thought, imprisons all opposition to his reign.

The story then slips into Avengers #125, as Thanos unleashes ‘The Power of Babel!’ (Steve Englehart, John Buscema & Cockrum) with his vast alien armada bombarding Earth. In combating it, the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are trapped out of phase with their home-world and, on defeating the star raiders, can only watch helplessly as ghosts in another dimension…

All seems lost but the Titan’s insane arrogance leaves the cosmically aware Mar-Vell with one slim chance to undo every change. Brilliantly outmanoeuvring the omnipotent ogre, the Kree Captain defeats and apparently destroys ‘The God Himself!’ in cosmically climatic Captain Marvel #33 (inked by Klaus Janson).

With the menace removed life returned to hectic normality, but the threat of Thanos had not ended.

While the war unfolded on Earth, Avatar of Life Adam Warlock had been making his way across the cosmos. The man-made man-god origins were as a lab experiment concocted by rogue geneticists eager to create a superman they could control for conquest. After facing the Fantastic Four, “Him” subsequently escaped to the stars before returning to his all-encompassing cocoon to evolve a little more.

That stellar shell was picked up by the moon-sized ship of self-created deity the High Evolutionary who was wrapped up in a bold new experiment. The naive wanderer observed as the Evolutionary created a duplicate Earth on the far side of the sun, running through billions of years of evolution in mere hours.

The intent was to create a civilisation without aggression or rancour, but the Evolutionary collapsed from exhaustion just as proto-hominid became Homo Sapien and his greatest mistake took instant advantage of the fact…

Years previously Man-Beast had been hyper-evolved from a wolf and instantly became his creator’s nemesis. Now he and his equally debased minions invaded the ship and interfered with the experiment: reintroducing evil to the perfect creatures below and, in fact, making them just like us. At incredible speed Earth’s history re-ran with the creature in the cocoon afforded a ring-side seat to humanity’s fall from grace…

When the High Evolutionary awoke and fought Man-Beast’s army, Him broke out of his shell and helped rout the demons, who fled to the despoiled Counter-Earth. With calm restored, the science-god sought to sterilise his ruined experiment: a world now indistinguishable from our own. No superheroes; disease and poverty rampant; injustice in ascendance and moments away from nuclear Armageddon… but Him begged him not to.

Claiming the evil tide could be turned, he begged the Evolutionary to stay his hand. The grieving, despondent creator agreed… but only until the rechristened Adam Warlock should admit that humanity was beyond redemption…

After failing in that endeavour Warlock travelled to the furthest reaches of creation only to discover a cruel and rapacious Universal Church of Truth slaughtering billions and learned with horror that the faith was based on a living god: his own evil future self The Magus.

Resolved to destroy the vile aberration he partnered with a troll named Pip and an assassin named Gamora, unaware that she actually worked for a hidden masterlord with a devilish agenda of his own…

Taken from Warlock #9-11 (October 1975-February 1976) the culmination of that struggle began with ‘The Infinity Effect’ (Starlin & Steve Leialoha) as the triumphant Magus easily countered every desperate ploy of Warlock to avoid an imminent metamorphosis into his malignant future self. All hope seems lost until Gamora’s master finally intercedes…

‘How Strange My Destiny!’ finds the unflappable Magus respond by setting 25,000 super-powered religious fanatics on the Warlock and Thanos as a way of keeping them occupied until the inevitable transformation occurs. ‘Enter the Redemption Principle!’ finds Magus at last rattled and personally intervening…

Issue #12’s sees an ‘Escape into the Inner Prison!’ as Warlock discovers that his ally is the Avatar of Death, just as the Magus has usurped his own position as Avatar of Life. With no other option he chooses to circumvent an intolerable fate with ‘The Strange Death of Adam Warlock!’

After months more purposeless adventuring for Adam, infinitely patient Thanos at last shares his ultimate plans with devoted disciple Gamora. With Starlin handling all the creative chores, ‘Just a Series of Events!’ in Warlock #15 follows the artificial angel as he meanders towards his ultimate end and reveals that the all-powerful Soul Gem he wears on his brow is more his parasitic master than faithful servant…

That leads directly into a brace of 1977 Annuals which promised to resolve the Thanos/Warlock conflict forever. ‘The Final Threat’ (Starlin & Joe Rubinstein), from Avengers Annual #7, saw Captain Marvel and Moondragon return to Earth with vague anticipations of an impending cosmic catastrophe.

Their premonitions are confirmed when galactic wanderer Adam Warlock arrives with news that death-obsessed Thanos has amassed an alien armada and built a Soul-Gem powered cannon to snuff out the stars like candles…

Broaching interstellar space to stop the scheme, the united heroes forestall the stellar invasion and prevent the Dark Titan from destroying the Sun – but only at the cost of Warlock’s life…

Then ‘Death Watch!’ (Starlin & Rubinstein, Marvel Two-in-One Annual #2) finds Peter Parker plagued by prophetic nightmares, disclosing how Thanos had snatched victory from defeat and now holds the Avengers captive whilst he again prepares to extinguish Sol.

With nowhere else to turn, the anguished, disbelieving Spider-Man heads for the Baxter Building, hoping to borrow a spacecraft, and unaware that The Thing also had a history with the terrifying Titan.

Although utterly overmatched, the mismatched substitute-champions of Life subsequently upset Thanos’ plans enough so that the Avengers and the Universe’s true agent of retribution are able to end the Titan’s threat forever… or at least until next time…

That ought to be the end of this first cycle of cosmic conflagration but there’s still one more treat on offer here.

Logan’s Run was a short-lived licensed property tie-in and #6 incongruously featured a 5-page filler short starring Thanos in battle against his precision-crafted nemesis Drax the Destroyer: a typically inconclusive out-world clash over ‘The Final Flower’ by Scott Edelman & Mike Zeck.

A timeless classic of the company and the genre, made topical by the latest Marvel Cinematic Universe extravaganza, this is a tale no full-blooded print or screen-based Fights ‘n’ Tights fan can be without.
© 1972, 1973, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 2013, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Sub-Mariner Marvel Masterworks volume 2


By Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Raymond Marais, Archie Goodwin, Bill Everett, Dan Adkins, Werner Roth, Marie Severin, Gene Colan, John Buscema, & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2688-1 (HB)

Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner is the offspring of a water-breathing Atlantean princess and an American polar explorer; a hybrid being of immense strength, highly resistant to physical harm, able to fly and exist above and below the waves. Created by young, talented Bill Everett, Namor technically predates Marvel/Atlas/Timely Comics.

He first caught the public’s attention as part of the fire vs. water headlining team in Marvel Comics #1 (October 1939 and soon to become Marvel Mystery Comics) sharing honours and top billing with The Human Torch, but he had originally been seen (albeit in a truncated black and white version) in Motion Picture Funnies: a weekly promotional giveaway handed out to moviegoers earlier in the year.

Quickly becoming one of the company’s biggest draws, Namor gained his own title at the end of 1940 (cover-dated Spring 1941) and was one of the last super-characters to go at the end of the first heroic age. In 1954, when Atlas (as the company then was) briefly revived its “Big Three” (the Torch and Captain America being the other two) costumed characters, Everett returned for an extended run of superb fantasy tales, but even so the time wasn’t right and the title sunk again.

When Stan Lee & Jack Kirby started reinventing comic-books in 1961 with the Fantastic Four, they revived the all-but forgotten awesome amphibian as a troubled, semi-amnesiac, and decidedly more regal and grandiose anti-hero. The returnee despised humanity; embittered at the loss of his sub-sea kingdom (seemingly destroyed by American atomic testing) whilst simultaneously besotted with the FF’s Sue Storm.

Namor knocked around the budding Marvel universe for a few years, squabbling with other assorted heroes such as the Hulk, Avengers and X-Men, before securing his own series as one half of Tales to Astonish.

This second subsea selection – available in hardback and eBook editions – collects Tales to Astonish #88-101, Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner #1 and The Sub-Mariner #1, circuitously spanning February 1967 to May 1968; opening with a florid and enthusiastic Introduction from sometime-scribe and passionate life-long fan Roy Thomas before the undersea action resumes.

Crafted by Stan Lee & Bill Everett, the Tales to Astonish #88 Sub-Mariner saga saw sub-sea barbarian Attuma attack once more, employing a lost extraterrestrial super-robot when ‘A Stranger Strikes from Space!’. The tale concluded in ‘The Prince and the Power!’ as the Marine Marvel turned the tables on his enemies through brains not brawn, after which Namor’s greatest rival returned in ‘To Be Beaten by Byrrah!’

Here the Prince’s ruthless cousin (last seen in the short-lived 1950s revival of Sub-Mariner Comics) employed gutter politics and subliminal hypnosis to oust the true ruler, only to receive his comeuppance in ‘Outside the Gates Waits Death!’: this latter seeing the inking debut of arch-stylist Dan Adkins.

Illustrating in a style that owed everything to Wally Wood, Adkins took over the pencilling in #92’s ‘It Walks Like a Man!’ This tale of atomic pollution and American naval intransigence is a terse foretaste of Sub-Mariner’s later role as eco-warrior, and the concluding part features Roy Thomas’ first script for the aquatic antihero in ‘The Monarch and the Monster!’ as Namor battles a nuclear golem and aggrieved US submarine commander to curtail imminent war…

Nevertheless, Namor was still dragged into a surface tyrant’s armed conflict in ‘Helpless, at the Hands of Dragorr!’ (Thomas & Everett), and incoming scripter Raymond Marais joined Thomas, Everett & Colletta on ‘The Power of the Plunderer!’ Here the piratical old Daredevil villain attacks an American civilian experimental undersea city.

Marais solo-scripted second chapter ‘Somewhere Stands Skull Island!’ as outraged Namor trails the Plunderer to the antediluvian Savage Land only to be captured and seemingly enslaved.

TtA #97’s ‘The Sovereign and the Savages’ came courtesy of Thomas and unsung art star Werner Roth – who had actually taken over the art halfway through the previous episode. Inked by Adkins, the Plunderer’s assault on Atlantis is finally foiled in ‘…To Destroy the Realm Eternal!’ but the vile events precipitated a similar attack on Namor’s homeland by a US atomic submarine in ‘When Falls the Holocaust!’ (by Archie Goodwin & Dan Adkins) in #99.

Marvel’s “split-books” had been devised as a way to promote their burgeoning stable of stars whilst labouring under a highly restrictive distribution deal which limited the number of titles they could release each month. In 1968 the company escaped this onerous commitment and thereby expanded exponentially.

In the months leading up to that virtual relaunch a number of bold experiments occurred: the most impressive of which was the first actual meeting of the monstrous stars of Marvel’s antihero title since they had won their own series.

Tales to Astonish #100, by Lee, Marie Severin & Adkins had Namor’s plan to recruit the Hulk as an ally go spectacularly awry after the Puppet Master fomented a near-disaster that almost levelled Miami in ‘Let There Be Battle!’, a tale that took 22 pages to unfold.

The final issue of Astonish then introduced a villain who would alter forever the history and perception of the Sub-Mariner. ‘…And Evil Shall Beckon!’ by Goodwin, Gene Colan & Adkins saw the aquatic antihero plagued by visions of a bestial foe who threatened his throne and people, drawing Namor to a confrontation in the Polar regions where the first Atlantis had been built…

For reasons never disclosed (and I shall charitably keep my assumptions private) the Golden Avenger and Prince of Atlantis both had to wait a month before getting their own first issues, necessitating one last split-book. Iron Man and Sub-Mariner #1 (April 1968) carried the middle parts of two epics that each concluded in memorable debut issues, but the amphibian’s contribution ‘Call Him Destiny …or Call Him Death!’ – by Thomas, Colan & Frank Giacoia – did no more than whet the appetite by revealing half an origin before apparently killing the lead character.

Sub-Mariner #1 (May1968, by Thomas, John Buscema & Giacoia) more than made up for the confusion as Namor’s true origin and the reason for his bouts of amnesia were explained by malign super-telepath Destiny, as ‘Years of Glory… Day of Doom!’ recapped Sub-Mariner’s gloriously chequered past whilst setting up another epic quest that would prove amongst this venerable character’s very best. That, however, is the subject of another volume.

Before the end, though, there are bonus benefits in the form of pages of original art and covers by Colan and Everett.

These tales feature some of Marvel’s very best artists at their visual peak, and although a few of the stories no longer bear a critical scrutiny, the verve and enthusiasm still shine through. Many early Marvel Comics are more exuberant than qualitative, but this volume, especially from an art-lover’s point of view, is a wonderful exception: a historical treasure that fans will find delightful.
© 1967, 1968, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Marvel’s Avengers – Infinity War Prelude


By Will Corona Pilgrim, Tigh Walker, Jorge Fornés, Chris O’Halloran, with Jonathan Hickman, Jim Starlin, Jim Cheung, Ron Lim & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-0943-7

With another eagerly anticipated Marvel Cinematic Universe film premiering around the world, here’s a timely trade paperback and eBook edition to augment the celluloid exposure and cater to movie fans wanting to follow up with a comics experience.

Comprising selected reprints and new digital material designed to supplement the movie release, these Prelude editions have become a traditional part of the dissemination and build-up and this compilation contains Marvel’s Avengers Infinity War Prelude #1-2 plus material starring the ultimate arch-villain Thanos taken from Infinity #1 and Thanos Annual #1.

This original 2-part miniseries sets the scene for the film blockbuster: written by Will Corona Pilgrim and based on the Captain America: Civil War screenplay by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely. It was realised by illustrator Tigh Walker, colourist Chris O’Halloran and letterer Travis Lanham and reveals how the knowledge that Captain America’s old ally Bucky (AKA Winter Soldier) assassinated Tony Stark’s parents splits the Avengers into two warring teams…

After a ferocious battle, Cap’s allies – Falcon, Scarlet Witch, Ant-Man and Hawkeye – are broken out of prison by the renegade Sentinel of Liberty and take refuge in Wakanda where the advanced technologies of the Black Panther deprogram Bucky even as in America an isolated Stark reconfigures his armour in advance of an overwhelming threat heading to Earth from the depths of space…

The second chapter – with Jorge Fornés as artist – features new movie maven Dr. Strange, coming to terms with his role in a terrifying universe of appalling unknown forces and deadly dangers.

As advisor Wong regales the wizard with tales and histories of the Infinity Stones and how they have shaped events (as seen in many previous MCU films), Thor and Loki return to Earth to consult the mage in the matter of the sudden disappearance of Asgardian All-Father Odin

In space, the Guardians of the Galaxy are also gauging a growing threat as cosmic overlord Thanos turns his avaricious eyes upon Earth…

Of course, all these plot threads get knotted together in the movie…

The supplemental classic appearances then open with the first chapter of mega publishing event Infinity #1 (August 2013), scripted by Jonathan Hickman.

In the aftermath of the blockbuster Avengers versus X-Men war, the company-wide reboot MarvelNOW! reformed the entire overarching continuity: a drastic reshuffle and rethink of characters, concepts and brands with an eye to winning new readers and feeding the company’s burgeoning movie blockbuster machine…

Moreover, numerous story strands were slowly building and combining to kick off the Next Big Thing with the cosmically revamped Avengers titles forming the spine of an encroaching mega-epic.

The intergalactic Hammer of Doom finally fell as a two-pronged, all-out attack which saw an impossibly ancient threat materialise to wipe out life in the cosmos, whilst Earth itself was targeted by an old enemy with a long memory and monstrous agenda…

What Came Before: In recent Avengers episodes an impossibly ancient trio of galactic “Gardeners” – robotic Aleph, seductive Abyss and passionate Ex Nihilo – attempted to remake Earth into something special. To that end they bombarded the world with “Origin bombs”, seeding locations with bizarre, exotic and uncompromising new life-forms.

When the Avengers went after them, the invaders claimed to have been tasked by The Builders – first species in creation – and their Mother of the Universe to test and, whenever necessary, eradicate, recreate and replace life on all worlds.

Although the World’s Mightiest Heroes defeated the intruders and set about mitigating the effects of the O-bombs on Earth, it seemed increasingly futile as global threats seemingly multiplied without surcease. Evidence also indicated that the very structure and celestial mechanics of the multiverse were catastrophically unravelling.

And then rumours began of an incredible alien armada heading directly for Earth…

It all starts here with the miniseries’ first issue as ‘Infinity’ (illustrated by Jim Cheung, Mark Morales, John Livesay & David Meikis) focuses on Saturnian moon Titan where death-driven despot Thanos dispatches his diabolical Outrider to demand ‘The Tribute’ from another newly enslaved world in his growing interstellar empire. Some of the Dark Lord’s most effective agents are already on Earth, stalking the planet’s greatest champions and ‘Constructing Apocalypse’

Sixty thousand light-years away, an even bigger threat is mopping up the puissant Space Knights of Galador. Various varieties of Builders – of the same ancient order that spawned Aleph, Abyss and Ex Nihilo – have razed the planet whilst unearthly new Avenger Captain Universe (whom the Gardeners call “Mother”) can only look on with despair as her wayward children destroy another world tainted by contact with Earth…

‘Orbital’ finds Captain America and Hawkeye cleaning out a nest of Skrulls in Palermo, but these invaders are far from the arrogant, treacherous warriors they’re accustomed to. The shapeshifters are scared, cowering refugees, fleeing and hiding from something incomprehensibly bad…

‘What was Hidden, Now Uncovered’ then focuses on the Inhumans’ floating city Attilan, currently parked above Manhattan, where Outrider prepares to extract secrets from the brain of slumbering monarch Black Bolt.

Even as the supremely powerful Inhuman foils the ghastly intrusion, the Avengers have regrouped following Captain Universe’s return with warnings of an oncoming impossibly vast Builder Armada. It merely confirms what Earth’s deep space monitoring array already shows: The fleet is bearing directly on Earth and any race or empire in the way is summarily destroyed as the invaders move ever closer.

The once unbeatable Kree are only the latest to fall…

When a distress call arrives from the rulers of the Galactic Council representing Kree, Skrulls, Badoon, Spartax, Brood and Shi’ar, the Avengers are soon ‘Outbound’, resolved to stop the fleet long before it reaches Earth.

Severely wounded, Outrider returns to Titan to inform Thanos that the thing he seeks most in the universe has been hidden on Earth by Black Bolt, prompting an invasion by the Titan’s own fleet long before the Builders can arrive. Moreover, almost all the planet’s infernal metahuman champions have left for Kree space…

If that whetted your appetite, you’ll need to see the two volume Infinity collection…

Here, however, we move on to Thanos Annual #1 (July 2014) as a defeated, comatose Mad Titan recalls an early turning point in his life. Written by Jim Starlin, pencilled by Ron Lim and inked by Andy Smith, ‘Damnation and Redemption’ begins after his first defeat by Captain Marvel and the Avengers, when he used a Cosmic Cube to become God before being stripped of everything through his own arrogance.

At this low ebb he is tempted by arch demon Mephisto but saved by his own future self, using the Infinity Gauntlet’s Time Gem to correct an almost irrevocable error…

Shown his potential future, the Titanian plotter thinks he is on the rise but has not counted on the interference of true cosmic gods such as the Living Tribunal…

This selection also includes a cover and variants gallery by Adam Kubert, Dale Keown & Ive Svorcina, Skottie Young, Marko Djurdjević, Lim & Smith and Starlin & Al Milgrom.

From such disparate seeds movie gold can grow, but never forget that the originating material is pretty damned good too and will deliver a tempting tray of treats that should have most curious fans scurrying for back-issue boxes, bookshop shelves or online emporia…
© 2013, 2014, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Spider-Man: Marvel Team-Up by Claremont & Byrne


By Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Ralph Macchio, Dave Hunt & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-5866-0

The concept of team-up books – an established A-lister joining or battling (usually both) less well-selling company co-stars – was not new when Marvel decided to award their most popular hero the lion’s share of a new title, but they wisely left their options open by allocating an occasional substitute lead in the Human Torch.

In those halcyon, simpler days editors were acutely conscious of potential over-exposure and since super-heroes were actually in a decline at that time, they may well have been right.

Nevertheless, when it launched in March 1972, Marvel Team-Up was the second official Spider-Man title (an abortive companion title Spectacular Spider-Man was created for the more respectable – and pricey – magazine market in 1968 but folded after two issues) and it immediately began bucking the downward trend for costumed crusaders.

Encompassing July 1977 to November 1978 and re-presenting Marvel Team-Up #59-70 and 75, this highly selective and utterly engaging volume gathers the (almost) complete oeuvre and cathartic collaborations of late 70’s wonder kids Chris Claremont and John Byrne: at that time setting the comics world on fire with their Iron Fist and new X-Men tales. Why “almost”? Because the book sadly omits a lovely Red Sonja pairing presumably unavailable as the “She-Devil with a Sword” is now licensed to another publisher…

The tense suspense and cataclysmic action commence with #59 which declared ‘Some Say Spidey Will Die by Fire… Some Say by Ice!’ by (Claremont, Byrne & inker Dave Hunt) as veteran Avenger Yellowjacket is apparently murdered by rampaging mystery maniac Equinox, the Thermo-Dynamic Man and the Amazing Arachnid is hard-pressed to stop the traumatised Wasp exacting bloody vengeance in concluding episode ‘A Matter of Love… and Death!’ in MTU #60

Claremont had actually begun scripting the title with issue #57 as a succession of espionage-flavoured heroes and villains battled for possession of a mysterious clay statuette.

The secret of the artefact is now revealed in #61 as the Human Torch Johnny Storm joins his creepy-crawly frenemy in battle against the Super-Skrull and learns ‘Not All Thy Powers Can Save Thee!’, before the furious clash calamitously escalates to include Ms. Marvel with the next issue’s ‘All This and the QE2’

Despite the very best efforts of Claremont & Byrne, their Kung Fu fantasy Iron Fist never quite achieved the kind of sales traction of their collaboration on the X-Men, and thus the living weapon lost his circulation battle with issue #15 of his own title.

The series ended in spectacular fashion, but the cancellation was clearly unplanned, as two major subplots went unresolved: private detective Misty Knight had disappeared on an undercover assignment to investigate European gang-boss John Bushmaster and K’un Lun kid Danny Rand was still suffering repeated attacks on his chi by the enigmatic and murderous Steel Serpent

Frustrated fans didn’t have to wait long for a resolution though: Marvel Team-Up was becoming the creative team’s personal clearing house for unresolved plot-lines. Issues #63 and 64 exposed the secret of the sinister K’un Lun pariah on the ‘Night of the Dragon’ before Rand and Spidey – with the assistance of Daughters of the Dragon Misty Knight and Colleen Wing – finally ended the threat in blistering martial arts manner with ‘If Death Be My Destiny!’

After a short and sweet flurry of original adventures in his own UK title, Captain Britain eventually succumbed to the English version of funnybook limbo – his title subsumed by a more successful one with CB reduced to reprints. Soon after, he pyrrhically debuted across the water in Marvel Team-Up #65 ‘Introducing Captain Britain’ by originating scripter Claremont and British-born, Canada-bred Byrne.

The story depicted Brian Braddock on student transfer to Manhattan as the unsuspecting house-guest of Peter Parker. Before long the heroes had met, fought and then teamed-up to defeat the flamboyant hit-man games-obsessed Arcade with the transatlantic tale concluding in #66 wherein the abducted antagonists systematically dismantled the maniac’s ‘Murderworld’.

The mystery of a long-vanished feline were-woman warrior was then resolved in ‘Tigra, Tigra, Burning Bright!’ as the webslinger is targeted by Kraven the Hunter, using the Feral Fury as his enslaved attack beast until Spider-Man breaks her conditioning, after which Claremont, Byrne & Bob Wiacek explore ‘The Measure of a Man!’ in #68 as the Arachnid philanthropically returns the captive Man-Thing to his Florida swamp habitat. No good deed ever goes unpunished and soon he encounters horrific demon D’Spayre torturing benevolent enchanters Dakimh and Jennifer Kale. It takes every ounce of courage both man and monster possess to defeat the sadistic dark lord…

A clash with Egyptian-themed thieves next draws Spidey into the years-long duel between cosmic powered X-Man Havoc and his nemesis the Living Monolith in ‘Night of the Living God!’ (inked by Ricardo Villamonte), but when the battle turns against them it requires the thunderous might of Thor to stop the ravening astral menace in ‘Whom Gods Destroy!’ by Claremont, Byrne & Tony DeZuñiga…

This epic clash signalled an end to the good times as MTU then downshifted to short filler tales but this collection of top-rate comics entertainment still end on a stellar high as Claremont, Ralph Macchio, Byrne & Al Gordon unite in tribute to the New York Fire Department with #75’s ‘The Smoke of That Great Burning!’ wherein Spider-Man and Hero for Hire Luke Cage are caught up in a robbery and hostage crisis which soon turns into a major conflagration…

There’s tons of great Fights ‘n’ Tights action here and younger readers will have a blast, so why not consider this tome for your “Must-Have” library…
© 1977, 1978, 2011, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Incredible Hulk Marvel Masterworks volume 4


By Stan Lee, Gary Friedrich, Roy Thomas, Bill Everett, Archie Goodwin, Marie Severin, Herb Trimpe, Frank Giacoia & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2682-9 (HB)

Bruce Banner was a military scientist who was caught in a gamma bomb blast of his own devising. As a result of continual ongoing mutation, stress and other factors can cause him to transform into a giant green monster of unstoppable strength and fury.

After an initially troubled few years, the gamma-irradiated gargantuan finally found his size 700 feet and a format that worked, becoming one of young Marvel’s most popular features. After his first solo-title folded, the morose man-monster shambled around the slowly-coalescing Marvel Universe as guest star and/or villain du jour until a new home was found for him.

Covering May to December 1968, this sturdy hardback (and eBook) collection re-presents issues #103-110 of his second solo-starring series and also includes the first Incredible Hulk Annual from autumn of that year.

Following a rather incredulous and self-deprecating Introduction from artist Herb Trimpe the never-ending saga resumes. Trimpe, associated with the character for nearly a decade, began his tenure as Marie Severin’s inker in Tales to Astonish #94 and would eventually take over pencilling the Jade Juggernaut, but before that epic handover rising star Gary Friedrich scripts, Marie pencils and veteran artist Frank Giacoia inks the all-action advent of a tragic alien antagonist in #103’s ‘And Now… the Space Parasite!’: a former hero who seemingly perished after attempting to consume the Green Goliath’s abundant life energies.

‘Ring Around the Rhino!’ in #104 is another paean to the Hulk’s destructive potential and visceral appeal as the gamma-fuelled enemy agent is tasked by his cruel masters with abducting Bruce Banner before a longer plot-strand, tinged with pathos and irony, began in Incredible Hulk #105, courtesy of surprise scripters Roy Thomas and Bill Everett, ably illumined by Severin and inker George Tuska.

‘This Monster Unleashed!’ sees the Missing Link – a radioactive and violently mutating victim of Soviet aggression – dumped in New York, and easily capable of burning our dull-witted hero into glowing ashes.

The second part, ‘Above the Earth… A Titan Rages!’ – by Thomas and Archie Goodwin – was pencilled by the neophyte Trimpe over Severin’s breakdowns, with Tuska inking. Sadly, the result is rather a muddle nearly as great as the story itself since the action abruptly switches from New York to Russia after the battling behemoths are suddenly abducted by Yuri Breslov, the Soviet counterpart to Nick Fury and his agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. who promptly loses them over a rural and isolated farm collective.

The story neatly segues into a much more polished yarn with #107’s ‘Ten Rings Hath… the Mandarin’ (by Friedrich & Trimpe with wonderfully rugged inking from the great Syd Shores) as the oriental despot tries to enslave the emerald engine of destruction…

The extended epic concludes with savage success as Stan Lee returns to script and Trimpe – inked by the legendary John Severin (yep, Marie’s big brother) – pulls all the strands together in the action-packed finale ‘Monster Triumphant!’, guest-starring Nick Fury, Yuri Breslov and even Chairman Mao Tse Tung!

Cover-dated October, The Incredible Hulk Annual #1 was one of the best comics of 1968. Behind an iconic Jim Steranko cover, Friedrich, Marie Severin & Shores (with lots of last-minute inking assistance) delivered a passionate, tense and melodramatic parable of alienation that nevertheless was one of the most action-stuffed fight-fests ever depicted.

In 51 titanic pages ‘A Refuge Divided!’ sees the forlorn and perpetually lonely Jade Juggernaut stumble upon the hidden Great Refuge of genetic outsiders. The Inhumans – recovering from a recent failed coup by new players Falcona, Leonus, Aireo, Timberius, Stallior, Nebulo and their secret backer (the king’s brother Maximus the Mad) – are distracted by the Hulk’s arrival.

All too soon, suspicion and short tempers result in carnage and chaos. The band of super-rebels start the fight but it’s the immensely powerful Black Bolt who eventually battles the infuriated Hulk to a standstill…

This is the vicarious thrill taken to its ultimate, still one of the very best non-Lee-Kirby tales of that period, and the issue also provides a pictorial extra with a Marvel Masterwork Pin-up featuring 11 different versions and a challenge to identify the artists…

Back at the monthly venue, Incredible Hulk #109 takes up from the end of the Mandarin saga with the Hulk rampaging through Red China, but still without a settled creative team in place. ‘The Monster and the Man-Beast!’ was written by Stan Lee, laid out by Giacoia, pencilled by Trimpe and inked by John Severin, as the Hulk trashes the Chinese Army and accidentally interferes with a Red super-missile…

The upshot is that the man-monster is hurtled into space and blasted into the Antarctic paradise known as the Savage Land. This preserve of dinosaurs and cavemen is a visually perfect home for the Hulk and the addition of Tarzan analogue Ka-Zar, and a primitive death-cult worshipping an alien device designed to destroy the world, ramps up the tension nicely.

The tale and this edition wrap up with the attack of ‘Umbu the Unliving!’ (Lee, Trimpe & John Severin) as yet another extraterrestrial device left to facilitate Earth’s demise goes into overkill mode. Thankfully Banner and his green alter-ego dispatch it with Ka-Zar’s assistance, albeit at the cost of Banner’s life.

As they said at the time “To Be Hulkinued!”…

Adding even more deal appeal to this book is a stunning selection of comedy sketches and cartoons devised by the infamously puckish Marie Severin to cheer up her fellow Bullpen pals as well as Hulk original art pages and covers by her, brother John, Trimpe, Giacoia, and Steranko – plus her unused cover for that iconic Annual.

This titanic tome of Hulk heroics offers visceral thrillers and chaotic clashes overflowing with dynamism, enthusiasm and sheer quality: tales crucial to later, more cohesive adventures. Even at their most hurried, these epics offer an abundance of full-on, butt-kicking, “breaking-stuff” catharsis to delight the destructive eight-year-old in all of us.
© 1968, 2007, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Spider-Man: The Graphic Novels


By Susan K. Putney, Gerry Conway, Stan Lee, Charles Vess, Berni Wrightson, Alex Saviuk, Ross Andru & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-6065-6

When Marvel began its line of Original Graphic Novels in 1980, the books were based on European Albums: large, square-bound paperback volumes offering 80 to 100 pages of new material on high-quality paper. The project – which began with Jim Starlin’s The Death of Captain Marvel – produced some classy results that the company has seldom come close to repeating since. Both original concepts and established characters were represented in that initial run and many of the stories still stand out today as huge successes: debuting many new series, celebrating licensed properties and devising special stories featuring the company’s proprietary superstars.

Marvel icon the Amazing Spider-Man graced a bunch of extraordinary sagas which were reprinted in 2012 and now form the contents of this splendid oversized (190 x 286 mm) hardback and eBook edition.

The web-wrapped wonderment begins with Hookey – originally released as Marvel Graphic Novel #22 in August 1986. This charming fantasy fable written by Susan K. Putney and painted by comic-book legend Berni Wrightson with the colouring assistance of Michelle Wrightson took the wallcrawler on a journey unlike any other he had previously experienced…

Marandi Sjörokker is not the carefree little girl she appears to be. For a start she’s been twelve for over two hundred years, and after introducing herself by calling Spider-Man “Petey”, she goes on to reveals how she knew him when he was a toddler and she delivered newspapers to his Uncle Ben…

And so begins a wild and beguiling other-dimensional romp, full of action and spectacle, as the webslinger takes a break from his grim and grimy reality to help the permanently adolescent sorceress battle against the demonic and unstoppable TordenKakerlakk (which I’m reliably informed is Norwegian for Thunder Cockroach).

Moreover, this witty, whimsical coming-of-age tale is beautifully and imaginatively illustrated by a master craftsman. A wonderful change-of-pace tale that perfectly displays the versatility of everybody’s favourite wall-crawler – and one that once read will never be forgotten…

Marvel Graphic Novel #46 was first released in May 1989, soon after Peter Parker married Mary Jane Watson and comes courtesy of Gerry Conway, Alex Saviuk & Andy Mushynsky. By referencing the stories crafted by a host of creators since the Amazing Arachnid’s debut, the tale (with Doctor Octopus as menace du jour) sheds new light on how the newlyweds grew up and grew together against terrible odds to live their now-united but always Parallel Lives

Charles Vess’ Spirits of the Earth is one of the prettiest graphic novels ever produced, not to say one of the most entertaining Spider-Man adventures ever told and was first released as premium hardcover Marvel Graphic Novel #63 in August 1990.

Here Mary Jane and Peter Parker are astounded and delighted to discover that an unknown relative has left the bride a castle deep in the Scottish Highlands. Setting off for a second honeymoon they soon become embroiled in ancient magic and high-tech abominations courtesy of the Celtic branch of the perfidious Mutants and Millionaires cabal The Hellfire Club

Ghoulies, ghosties and villainous super-criminals combine with some of the best artwork you’ve ever seen for a truly wonderful adventure that desperately needs to be on your bookshelf. Also included here is a delightful pictorial travelogue by Vess entitled ‘A Scottish Journey’

Wrapping up the vintage adventure is Fear Itself by Gerry Conway, Stan Lee, Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, which was in February 1992 stand-alone OGN Marvel Graphic Novel #72.

This taut thriller is a good, old-fashioned, nostalgic Spidey yarn for readers who yearn for simpler times long past. Unlike many all-new works, it’s also quite tightly bound to Marvel continuity (perhaps it was intended as an annual but got “promoted” to a more expansive and therefore expensive format?), so if you need a lot of footnotes to read Spider-Man you might want to think carefully before plunging in.

The plot concerns the return of old Captain America villain Baron Zemo – radically transformed here by Hitler’s deranged geneticist Arnim Zola. The revived, resurrected and radically revised Zemo steals a new, weaponized drug from the US government developed at the company owned by Peter Parker’s friend Harry Osborn.

This chemical contagion drives victims mad with fear and – in alliance with Nazi-hunting mercenary Silver Sable – our hero travels post haste to Bavaria for a series of life-or death showdowns in a terrific ticking-timebomb-thriller.

Although there are some plot holes you could drive a Kampfpanzer through (that’s a big Nazi tank, you know) the dialogue by two of the wall-crawler’s greatest scribes is still effective and engaging, but the real joy is the last hurrah of the fabulous and criminally undervalued art team of Ross Andru & Mike Esposito, who had been crafting great comics in innumerable genres since the early 1950s, and were Spider-Man’s artists for a huge part of the Seventies.

Thrills. Spills. Chills. Ancient Hills and indomitable wills: this confection of Spidery classics is something no Fights ‘n’ Tights fans should miss. Go on. You know you want to…
© 1986, 1989, 1990, 1992, 2012, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved

Iron Man Marvel Masterworks volume 4


By Stan Lee, Archie Goodwin, Gene Colan & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2678-2 (HB)

Marvel’s rise to dominance of the US comicbook industry really took hold in 1968 when most of their characters finally got their own titles. Prior to that – and due to a highly restrictive distribution deal – the company had been tied to a limit of 16 publications per month. To circumvent this drawback, Marvel developed “split-books” with two features per title, such as Tales of Suspense where Iron Man originally solo-starred before being joined by patriotic cohort Captain America in issue #59 (cover-dated November 1964).

Marvel’s fortunes prospered – thanks in large part to Stan Lee’s gift for promotion, but primarily because of superbly engaging stories such as the ones collected in this enticing hardback and/or eBook edition.

With the new distributor came a demand for more product, and the stars of the split books were all awarded their own titles. When the division came, the Armoured Avenger started afresh with a “Collector’s Item First Issue” (but only after a shared one-shot with the Sub-Mariner that squared divergent schedules) with Cap retaining the numbering of the original title; thereby premiering in number #100.

Herein find contained in chronological order the remaining tales of the transitional period, reprinting Tales of Suspense #84-99, plus the pertinent portion of place-holding one-shot Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner #1 and at long last Iron Man #1, cumulatively covering December 1966 to May 1968.

Tony Stark is the acceptable face of 1960s Capitalism; a glamorous ultra-rich industrialist and inventor – and a benevolent all-conquering hero when clad in the super-scientific armour of his secret alter-ego, Iron Man.

Created in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and at a time when “Red-baiting” and “Commie-bashing” were American national obsessions, the emergence of a brilliant new Thomas Edison, using Yankee ingenuity and invention to safeguard and better the World, seemed inevitable. Combine the then-sacrosanct belief that technology and business could solve any problem with the universal imagery of noble knights battling evil and the concept behind the Golden Avenger seems an infallibly successful proposition. Of course, it helps that all that money and gadgetry is great fun and very, very cool…

Following a critique by critic and historian Arlen Schumer in his Introduction, this stunning all-Gene Colan illustrated volume begins with ToS #84 and picks up soap opera fashion with Stark submitting to months of governmental pressure and testifying to a Congressional Committee hungry for the secrets of his greatest creation.

However. at the critical moment, the inventor keels over…

Stark’s controversial reputation is finally restored as the public at last learns that his life is only preserved by a metallic chest-plate which keeps his maimed heart beating in ‘The Other Iron Man!’ (scripted by Lee and inked by Frank Giacoia). Somehow, nobody at all connects that hunk of steel to the identical one his Avenging “bodyguard” wears…

With the hero stuck in a hospital bed, best friend Happy Hogan foolishly dons the suit to preserve that precious secret only to be abducted by the insidious Mandarin in another extended assault that begins with ‘Into the Jaws of Death’.

Propelled by guilt and fuelled by fear the still-ailing Stark breaks into his own Congressionally-closed factory and creates new, more powerful armour before flying to his rescue in ‘Death Duel for the Life of Happy Hogan!’

The epic encounter successfully concluded, the Americans return home just in time for #87 and #88 to host the merciless Mole Man who attacks from below, prompting a ‘Crisis… at the Earth’s Core!’

The villain has no idea who hostage Stark really is, believing the inventor and his assistant Pepper Potts ‘Beyond all Rescue!’ but is soon proved very wrong, after which another old B-List bad-guy takes his shot in ‘The Monstrous Menace of the Mysterious Melter!’

Its tense, terse sequel ‘The Golden Ghost!’ fabulously features a glorious reprise of Iron Man’s original battle suit and a wonderfully twisty conclusion.

‘The Uncanny Challenge of the Crusher!’ offers an all-action tale – possibly marred for modern audiences by a painful Commie-bustin’ sub-plot featuring a thinly disguised Fidel Castro – and the impressions of the on-going “Police Action” in Indo-China are also a little gung-ho (if completely understandable) when Iron Man goes hunting for a Red Menace called Half-Face ‘Within the Vastness of Viet Nam!’

The urgent insertion results in another clash with incorrigible old foe Titanium Man in ‘The Golden Gladiator and… the Giant!’ before our hero at last snatches victory from the mechanical jaws of defeat in ‘The Tragedy and the Triumph!’ (this last inked by Dan Adkins).

Giacoia returns and a new cast member debuts in #95 as eager-beaver adult boy scout S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Jasper Sitwell is assigned as security advisor to America’s most prominent weapons maker, just as veteran Thor villain Grey Gargoyle attacks in ‘If a Man be Stone!’ The mismatched and overpowered maniac is then summarily defeated in ‘The Deadly Victory!’

Tales of Suspense #97 began an extended story-arc that would carry the series to the launch of the solo series and beyond, in which criminal cartel the Maggia schemes to move in on Stark’s company.

Their campaign opens with the hero’s capture, as ‘The Coming of… Whiplash!’ depicts the Golden Avenger cut to steely ribbons, drawn out in ‘The Warrior and the Whip!’ and – as the magnificent Archie Goodwin assumed the scripting reins and EC legend Johnny Craig came aboard as inker – finds Iron Man trapped on a sinking submarine ‘At the Mercy of the Maggia’ just as the venerable Tales of Suspense ends with its 99th issue…

Of course, it was just changing its name to Captain America, whilst Tales to Astonish seamlessly shifted into The Incredible Hulk, but – due to a scheduling snafu – neither of the split-book co-stars had a home that month (April 1968).

This situation led to the one-and-only Iron Man and the Sub-Mariner #1 to carry concluding episode ‘The Torrent Without… The Tumult Within!’, wherein sinister super-scientists of A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics, acronym-fans) snatch the Armoured Avenger from the Maggia’s swiftly sinking submarine, intent on stealing the hero’s technical secrets.

Invincible Iron Man #1 finally appeared with a May 1968 cover-date, triumphantly ending the extended sub-sea-saga as our hero stands ‘Alone against A.I.M.!’: a thrilling roller-coaster ride supplemented by ‘The Origin of Iron Man’ offering a revitalised re-telling to conclude Colan’s long and impressive tenure on the character.

Supplementing and counterpointing the ongoing graphic dramas herein are a stunning selection of original art pages and covers by Colan from the stories in this volume and even a brace of Don Heck pages from the previous Marvel Masterworks edition…

Despite some rough narrative patches this is a fantastic period in the Golden Gladiator’s career: one immaculately envisioned by Gene Colan and perfectly encapsulating the vast changes Marvel and America went through at the time. These unmissable tales of a true comics icon are some of the best and most memorable efforts of a simply transformative era and no Fights ‘n’ Tights fanatic can afford to be without them.
© 1966, 1967, 1968, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Avengers Epic Collection Volume 7: The Avengers/Defenders War


By Steve Englehart, Roy Thomas, Jim Starlin, Gerry Conway, Bob Brown, Sal Buscema, John Buscema, Rich Buckler & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-1-3029-1000-6

One of the most momentous events in comics history came in the middle of 1963 when a disparate gang of heroic individuals banded together to combat an apparently out of control Incredible Hulk.

The Avengers combined most of the company’s fledgling superhero line in one bright, shiny and highly commercial package. Over the intervening decades the roster has unceasingly changed, and now almost every character in the Marvel multiverse has at some time numbered amongst their colourful ranks…

The Avengers always proved that putting all one’s star eggs in on single basket can pay off big-time. Even when all Marvel Royalty such as Thor, Captain America and Iron Man are absent, it merely allows the team’s lesser lights to shine more brightly.

Of course, the founding stars always regularly feature due to a rotating, open door policy ensuring most issues include somebody’s fave-rave.

After instigators Stan Lee & Jack Kirby moved on, the team prospered under the guidance of Roy Thomas who grew into one of the industry’s most impressive writers, guiding the World’s Mightiest Heroes through a range of adventures ranging from sublimely poetic to staggeringly epic. He then handed over the scripting to a young writer who carried the team to even greater heights…

This stunning seventh trade paperback compilation – also available in eBook iterations – assembles Avengers #115-128 and Giant Size Avengers #1, plus crucial crossover episodes from Defenders #8-1, Captain Marvel #33 and Fantastic Four # 150; collectively covering September 1973 to October 1974 and celebrating an era of cosmic catastrophe and cataclysmically captivating creative cross-pollination…

For kids – of any and all ages – there is a simply primal fascination with brute strength and feeling dangerous, which surely goes some way towards explaining the perennial interest in angry tough guys who break stuff as best exemplified by Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner and the Incredible Hulk.

When you add the mystery and magic of Doctor Strange the recipe for thrills, spills and chills becomes simply irresistible…

Last of the big star-name conglomerate super-groups, the Defenders would eventually number amongst its membership almost every hero – and some few villains – in the Marvel Universe.

No surprise there then since the initial line was composed of the company’s major league bad-boys: misunderstood, outcast and often actually dangerous to know. For Marvel in the 1970s, the outsider super-group must have seemed a conceptual inevitability – once they’d finally published it.

Apart from Spider-Man and Daredevil, all their heroes regularly teamed up in various mob-handed assemblages, and in the wake of the Defenders’ success even more super-teams featuring pre-existing characters would be packaged: The Champions, Invaders, New Warriors, Inhumans, Guardians of the Galaxy and so on… but never again with so many Very Big Guns…

The genesis of the team in fact derived from their status as publicly distrusted “villains”, and they never achieved the “in-continuity” fame or acceptance of other teams, but that simply seemed to leave the creators open to taking a few chances and playing the occasional narrative wild card.

In 1973 wunderkind scripter Steve Englehart was writing both Avengers and Defenders (as well as Doctor Strange, the Hulk and Luke Cage, Hero for Hire) and, yearning for the days of DC’s summer blockbuster annual events, decided to attempt his own massive multi-player epic.

Bravely given the editorial go-ahead at a time when deadline crunches regularly interrupted ongoing storylines, the author and his regular pencillers Sal Buscema and Bob Brown laid their plans…

Threads had been planted as early as Defenders #4 with Englehart carefully putting players in place for a hugely ambitious cross-over experiment: one that would turn the comics industry on its head.

After earthly madwoman Barbara Norris was cursed by amoral Asgardian Amora the Enchantress, the human was transformed into an incarnation of old Avengers enemy Valkyrie. The denouement of the tale also left part-time Avenger and Defender the Black Knight an ensorcelled, immobile stone statue. As Strange and Co. searched for a cure, aided by the Silver Surfer and tempestuous Hawkeye (another ex-Assembler looking to forge a solo career), they all fell into a subtle scheme orchestrated by two of the greatest forces of evil in all creation….

This bombastic tome commences with Avengers #115 as lead story ‘Below Us the Battle!’ (illustrated by Bob Brown & Mike Esposito sees the critically- understaffed Avengers travel to England and the castle of the Black Knight, only to find mystic resistance, a troglodytic race of scavengers and their old comrade long missing…

The issue also contained a little prologue, ‘Alliance Most Foul!’, which revealed other-dimensional Dark Lord Dormammu and Asgardian god of Evil Loki united to secure an ultimate weapon which would give them ultimate victory against all their foes.

This despotic duo would deceive the Defenders into securing the six component parts by “revealing” that the reconstructed Evil Eye could de-petrify and restore the Black Knight – a plan that began with a similar prologue at the end of Defenders #8…

‘Deception’ (Englehart, Sal Buscema & Esposito) was the first chapter in ‘The Avengers/Defenders Clash’ disclosing that a mystic SOS message from the spirit of the Black Knight is intercepted by the twin gods of evil, leading directly to ‘Betrayal!’ in Avengers #116, wherein the heroes, hunting for their missing comrade, “discover” that their oldest enemies Hulk and Sub-Mariner may have turned the Black Knight to stone…

This and third chapter ‘Silver Surfer Vs. the Vision and the Scarlet Witch’ see the rival teams split up: one to gather the scattered sections of the Eye and the other to stop them at all costs…

Defenders #9 (with Sal Buscema & Frank McLaughlin art) begins with tense recap ‘Divide …and Conquer’ before ‘The Invincible Iron Man Vs. Hawkeye the Archer’ and ‘Dr. Strange Vs. the Black Panther and Mantis’ sheds more suspicion and doubt on the vile villains’ subtle master-plan…

In Avengers #117, ‘Holocaust’, ‘Swordsman Vs. the Valkyrie’ and crucial turning point ‘Captain America Vs. Sub-Mariner’ (all by Brown & Esposito) lead to the penultimate duel in Defenders #10 (Sal Buscema & Frank Bolle) in ‘Breakthrough! The Incredible Hulk Vs. Thor’ and the inevitable joining together of the warring camps in ‘United We Stand!’. Tragically, understanding comes too late as Dormammu seizes the reconstructed Evil Eye and uses its power to merge his monstrous realm with Earth.

Avengers #118 delivers the cathartic climactic conclusion in ‘To the Death’ (Brown, Esposito & Frank Giacoia) wherein all the heroes of the Marvel Universe resist the demonic invasion on hideously mutated home soil whilst the Avengers and Defenders plunge deep into the Dark Dimension itself to end forever the threat of the evil gods (well, for the moment, at least…).

With the overwhelming cosmic threat over the victorious Defenders attempt to use the Eye to cure their petrified comrade, only to discover that his spirit has found a new home in the 12th century.

In #11’s ‘A Dark and Stormy Knight’ (Sal B with Bolle inks), the group battle black magic during the Crusades, fail to retrieve the Knight and acrimoniously go their separate ways – as did overworked departing scripter Englehart, who dropped the “non-team” to concentrate on “The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes”…

The drama resumes with a delightfully traditional spooky Halloween tale as the Avengers, warned by clairvoyant vision from martial arts enigma Mantis, head to Rutland, Vermont for the ‘Night of the Collector’ (#119, illustrated by Brown & Don Heck); encountering old friends, a dastardly and determined foe, blistering action and staggering suspense…

In ‘Death-Stars of the Zodiac!’ (Avengers#120, by Englehart, Brown & Heck), terrorist astrological adversaries and super-criminal cartel Zodiac attack again with a manic plan to eradicate everyone in Manhattan born under the sign of Gemini.

Thor, Iron Man, Vision, Scarlet Witch, Swordsman and Mantis are seemingly helpless to stop them but the blockbusting battle in #121’s ‘Houses Divided Cannot Stand!’ (illustrated by John Buscema & Heck,) and even the added assistance of Captain America and the Black Panther is of little advantage…

With Mantis injured the team begin to question her mysterious past, only to be lured to their seeming doom and ‘Trapped in Outer Space!’ (Brown & Mike Esposito) before at last turning the tables on their fearsome foes after the criminal Libra reveals a shocking secret…

Avengers #123, ( Brown & Heck) begins a vast and ambitious saga with ‘Vengeance in Viet Nam – or – An Origin For Mantis!’ as Libra’s claim to be Mantis’ father (a story vigorously and violently denied by the Martial Arts Mistress) sends the team to Indo-China in a big hurry.

The former mercenary declared that he left the baby Mantis with pacifistic Priests of Pama after running afoul of a local crime-lord, but the bewildered warrior-woman has no memory of such events, nor of being schooled in combat techniques by the Priests. Meanwhile, the gravely wounded Swordsman has also rushed to Saigon to confront his sadistic ex-boss Monsieur Khruul and save the Priests from being murdered by the gangster’s thugs… but is again too late. It is the same old story of his pathetic, wasted life…

Issue #124 has the team stumbling upon a scene of slaughter as dead clerics and criminals lead to a monstrous planet-rending alien horror freshly awakened in ‘Beware the Star-Stalker!’ (limned by John Buscema & Dave Cockrum)…

Mantis is forced to accept that her own memories are not real after Avengers #125, which unleashed ‘The Power of Babel!’ after a vast alien armada attacks and, in combating it, the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are trapped out of phase with their home-world.

This blockbuster battle bonanza was a crossover, and the penultimate episode of the spectacular Thanos War Saga that had featured in Captain Marvel, Marvel Feature and Iron Man.

Included in this compendium is climactic last chapter of that epic, plotted and illustrated by Jim Starlin, scripted by Englehart and inked by Klaus Janson. ‘The God Himself!’ (from Captain Marvel #33) sees mad Titan Thanos finally fall in combat to the valiant Kree warrior: a stunning piece of comics storytelling which stands up remarkably well here despite being seen without benefit of the preceding ten chapters…

It’s back to Avengers business as Roy Thomas, Rich Buckler & Dan Adkins return to the fold to delve and reboot some superhero history with ‘Nuklo… The Invader that Time Forgot!’ for the first quarterly edition of Giant-Size Avengers.

The stirring saga reintroduced 1940 Marvel sensation Bob Frank AKA The Whizzer in a taut and tragic tale of desperation as the aged speedster begs the heroes’ help in rescuing his son: a radioactive mutant locked in stasis by the US Government since the early 1950s. Unfortunately, within the recently unearthed chrono-capsule, the lad has grown into a terrifying atomic horror…

Moreover, while in the throes of a stress-induced heart attack the Whizzer lets slip that he is the also the father of mutant Avengers Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver

Back in regular continuity, Avengers #126 offers ‘All the Sights and Sounds of Death!’ (Englehart, Brown & Cockrum) as villains Klaw and Solarr invade Avengers Mansion in a devious attempt to achieve vengeance for past indignities, after which in #127 Sal Buscema & Joe Staton sign on as regular art team with ‘Bride and Doom!’ as the team voyage to the hidden Himalayan homeland of The Inhumans to attend the marriage of the aforementioned Quicksilver to elemental enchantress Crystal. Sadly, the happy event craftily coincides with an uprising of the genetic slave-race known as Alpha Primitives. Once again robotic giant Omega has incited the revolt, but this time it is controlled by an old Avengers enemy who reveals himself in the concluding chapter of the crossover…

The story wraps up in Fantastic Four #150 with ‘Ultron-7: He’ll Rule the World!’ by Gerry Conway, Buckler & Joe Sinnott, in which a devastating battle between FF, Inhumans and Avengers is ended by a veritable Deus ex Machina moment, after which, at long last ‘The Wedding of Crystal and Quicksilver’ ends events on a happy note.

But not for long as a final tale from Avengers #128’ sees the FF’s nanny Agatha Harkness get a new job tutoring Wanda Frank in actual sorcery to augment her mutant power. In Bewitched, Bothered, and Dead!’ (Englehart, Sal Buscema & Staton), the new student unwittingly allows dark mage Necrodamus access to the Mansion and the souls of the occupants, even as increasingly troubled Mantis makes a play for the Scarlet Witch’s synthezoid boyfriend The Vision; heedless of the hurt and harm she will bring to her current lover The Swordsman…

Extra enticements include Roy Thomas’ ‘Avengers Re-Assemble’ article from Giant-Size Avengers #1, art and features starring assorted Avengers from company fanzine F.O.O.M. (#3, 5, 6, 7, by John and Sal Buscema, John Byrne & Duffy Vohland, Marie Severin, Dave Cockrum, John Romita); comedy skit ‘Those Wedding Bells are Bustin’ Up that Avengin’ Gang of Mine’ by Tony Isabella & Paty Cockrum; House ads, covers from previous collections by Carlos Pacheco, Jesus Merino & Ang Tsang and Romita & Richard Isanove and an original art gallery of sketches, pages and covers by Brown, Romita, Starlin, Ron Wilson, John and Sal Buscema, Buckler and Byrne.

Roy Thomas and Steve Englehart were at the forefront of Marvel’s second generation of story-makers, brilliantly building on and consolidating the compelling creation of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko: spearheading and constructing a logical, fully functioning wonder-machine of places and events that so many others were inspired by and could add to.

These terrific tales are perfect examples of superhero sagas done just right and also a pivotal step transforming the little company into today’s multinational corporate colossus. Englehart’s forthcoming concoctions would turn the Marvel Universe on its head and pave the way for a new acme of cosmic adventure…
© 1973, 1974, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.
Avengers Epic Collection Volume 7: The Avengers/Defenders War is scheduled for release on April 24th and is available digitally or for pre-order now.

Fantastic Four Marvel Masterworks volume 10


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Sinnott, Frank Giacoia, John Romita, Ron Frenz, John Verpoorten & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2061-2 (HB)                    : 978-0-7851-8839-1 (TPB)

Cautiously bi-monthly and cover-dated November 1961, Fantastic Four #1 (by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, George Klein & Christopher Rule) was crude: rough, passionate and uncontrolled excitement. Thrill-hungry kids pounced on it and the raw storytelling caught a wave of change starting to build in America. It and succeeding issues changed comicbooks forever.

In eight short years FF meteorically grew into the indisputable core-title and most consistently groundbreaking series of Marvel’s ever-unfolding web of cosmic creation: bombarding readers with a ceaseless salvo of new concepts and characters at a time when Kirby was in his conceptual prime and continually unfettering his vast imagination on plot after spectacular plot. Clearly inspired, Stan Lee scripted some of the most memorable superhero sagas Marvel – or any publisher, for that matter – had or has ever seen.

Both were on an unstoppable roll, at the height of their creative powers, and full of the confidence that only success brings, with The King particularly eager to see how far the genre and the medium could be pushed…

However, with this tenth Masterworks collection of tales from “The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine” the dream-team of Kirby and Stan Lee was shockingly sundered and a reeling Marvel entered a new epoch of uncertain futures and bold new directions – which is rather ironic since it was the company’s reticence to give the artist creative freedom which led to Kirby’s jumping ship to National/DC in the first place…

This epic and extras-packed tome covers the final days of the King’s reign on Marvel’s flagship title and encompasses the shaky start of a new era, covering Fantastic Four #94-104 (January to November 1970), plus diverse bonus treats including Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure – a rejected, recovered, recycled tale to delight all aficionados and only finally released in April 2008.

Four Those Who Came in Late: As seen in that unforgettable premier issue, maverick scientist Reed Richards, his fiancé Sue Storm, their close friend Ben Grimm – with Sue’s tag-along teenaged brother Johnny – survived an ill-starred private space-shot after Cosmic Rays penetrated their ship’s inadequate shielding and mutated them all.

Richards’ body became elastic, Sue gained the power to turn invisible and the kid could turn into living flame, but poor, tragic Ben horrifically devolved into a shambling, rocky freak…

Following another frothy, backward-looking Lee Introduction, the magic resumes with Joe Sinnott inking Fantastic Four #94, launching a string of single-issue stories via the doom-laden debut of eldritch babysitter/governess Agatha Harkness in ‘The Return of the Frightful Four!’ The recalcitrant rogues make a major mistake believing they could catch the FF off-guard by attacking when the heroes are interviewing a new nanny for the latest addition to the Fantastic Family…

At a time when superhero sales were in a slump and magical mystery themes resurgently returned, this rollercoaster ride of action, battle and suspense is most significant for finally giving Sue and Reed’s baby a name – Franklin Benjamin Richards – after literally years of shilly-shallying…

The Monocle was a technological super-assassin determined to trigger global nuclear Armageddon in #95’s ‘Tomorrow… World War Three!’ – in the middle of which Johnny’s Inhuman girlfriend Crystal is astoundingly abducted by her own family – before ‘The Mad Thinker and his Androids of Death!’ (inked by Frank Giacoia) once again ambush the team and yet more prove no match for the fab foursome…

A tense and moody episode further cashing in on the growing trend for creepy creatures and supernatural shenanigans manifests as ‘The Monster from the Lost Lagoon!’ in #97, offering a decidedly different take on the horror-movies it gloriously homaged as the First Family try to combine a quick tropical vacation with a little rumour-busting sea-beastie hunt…

Both Sinnott and the robotic Sentry Sinister return in #98’s turbulently-topical ‘Mystery on the Moon!’ as the global fervour over the first lunar landing in 1969 (conveniently forgetting, of course, the FF’s own numerous visits to our satellite beginning with issue #13) results in a cracking yarn wherein the team savagely stymie the intergalactic Kree Empire from sabotaging mankind’s first steps into space.

In FF #99 heartsick Johnny Storm at last snaps, invading the hidden home of the Inhumans. His intent is to reunite with his lost love at all costs, but of course tempers fray, everything escalates and ‘The Torch Goes Wild!’

With a restored Crystal happily in tow, the 100th anniversary adventure features a daft, extremely rushed but nonetheless spectacular all-out battle against robotic replicas of their greatest enemies in ‘The Long Journey Home!’

With the anniversary cataclysmically concluded, issue #101 provides a far more intriguing imbroglio when dastardly criminal combine the Maggia buy the team’s skyscraper HQ in a cunning, quasi-legal ploy to appropriate Reed Richards’ scientific secrets, resulting in total ‘Bedlam in the Baxter Building!’

Fantastic Four #102 sported the first cover not drawn by The King as John Romita (senior) prepared to jump into the artistic hot-seat following Kirby’s abrupt move to the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

After an incomprehensibly vast catalogue of creativity an unthinkable Changing of the Guard occurred when the increasingly discontented King of Comics jumped ship from the House of (mostly His) Ideas for arch-rival National/DC where he crafted his Fourth World Magnum Opus as well as a host of other game-changing comicbook classics…

An era ended at Marvel when the King abdicated his seemingly divinely-ordained position. Left to pacify and win back the stunned fans were Lee and a couple of budding talents named Romita and Buscema…

Kirby was not quite gone, however, as he and Sinnott opened an impressive extended epic wherein the mutant menace Magneto uses guile and subterfuge to turn ‘The Strength of the Sub-Mariner’ and his undersea armies against the FF and entire surface world…

Romita and inker John Verpoorten took over the story in mid-flow, depicting an embattled America ‘At War with Atlantis!’ before malign Magneto inevitably turns on Namor, inspiring the Prince to ally with the Fantastic Four to prevent the mutant’s dream of ‘Our World… Enslaved!’

That was more or less the end. Romita drew a couple more issues and eventually John Buscema took up the challenge, although a later issue baffled us fans by inexplicably pairing the new artist with a somehow returned Kirby…

Fantastic Four #108 contained ‘The Monstrous Mystery of the Nega-Man!’, “reintroducing” a character never before seen by recycling portions of a near-complete but rejected Kirby tale modified with new sequences illustrated by Buscema and Romita. In the published story (not included in this volume) the mysterious Janus had tapped into the anti-matter power of the Negative Zone once and now “returned” to steal more by crashing through the portal in Reed’s lab. Unfortunately, this attracts the attention of extinction-event predator Annihilus, who had long sought entry into our life-rich universe…

The origins of that yarn are convoluted and circuitous but are eruditely explained by archivist John Morrow in his article ‘Fantastic Four #108: Kirby’s Way’, supplemented by (almost) the entire original story reproduced from photostats of Kirby’s pencils and published pages from #108.

In 2007 those fragments and Kirby’s story notes were used by Lee, Joe Sinnott and Ron Frenz to reconstruct the tales as the King drafted it. The result was ‘Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure’ which offered a glorious slice of times past as the team (circa 1970) tackled a seemingly schizophrenic super-villain in ‘The Menace of the Mega-Men!’

It doesn’t really fit anywhere into continuity but it is a superbly nostalgic rush for devotees of the classics…

Rounding out the Kirby Kommemorations are a selection of testimonials, recollections and retrospective reminiscences from past collaborators, including ‘Inspiration by Dick Ayers’; ‘On, and On! by Joe Sinnott’ and ‘The Fall of ‘61’ by Roy Thomas, complete with contemporary photos, before former Kirby assistant and associate Mark Evanier discusses ‘The World’s Greatest Comics Magazine’ and Greg Theakston offers one final assessment in ‘The Changing of the Guard’ closes down the show.

Did I say closes? Not quite; as this tome still finds room for a selection of unused covers, production art, house ads, creator biographies and a complete index of the dream team’s achievements in ‘The First One Hundred (And Two) Days: A Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four Lexicon’.

These are the stories which confirmed Jack Kirby as the absolute master of superhero storytelling and gave Marvel the impetus to overtake the decades-dominant DC. They’re also some of the very best comics ever produced and as thrilling and compulsive now as they ever were. This is a book no addict of graphic narratives can be without.
© 1970, 2017 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Marvel Masterworks volume 1


By Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Dennis O’Neil, Roy Thomas, John Severin, Joe Sinnott, Don Heck, Howard Purcell, Ogden Whitney, John Buscema, Joe Sinnott, Jim Steranko & various (Marvel)
ISBN: 978-0-7851-2686-7 (HB)

Veteran war-hero and superspy Nick Fury debuted in Fantastic Four #21 (cover-dated December 1963): a grizzled, world-weary and cunning CIA Colonel at the periphery of the really big adventures in a fast-changing world.

What was odd about that? Well, the gruff, crudely capable combat everyman was already the star of the minor publisher’s only war comic, set twenty years earlier in (depending on whether you were American or European…) the beginning or middle of World War II.

Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos was an improbable, decidedly over-the-top and raucous combat comics series, similar in tone to later movies such as The Wild Bunch or The Dirty Dozen and had launched in May of that year.

Nevertheless, Fury’s latter-day self soon emerged as a big-name star once espionage yarns went global in the wake of popular TV sensations like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the elder iteration was given a second series beginning in Strange Tales #135 (cover-dated August 1965).

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. combined Cold War tensions with sinister schemes of World Conquest by a subversive, all-encompassing, hidden enemy organisation. The unfolding saga came with captivating Kirby-designed super-science gadgetry and – eventually – iconic and game-changing imagineering from Jim Steranko, whose visually groundbreaking graphic narratives took the comics art form to a whole new level…

For those few brief years with Steranko in charge, the S.H.I.E.L.D. series was one of the best strips in America – if not the world – but when the writer/artist left just as the global spy-fad was fading, the whole concept faded into the background architecture of the Marvel Universe…

This astounding full-colour compendium (available in hardcover and digital editions) deals with the outrageous, groundbreaking, but still notionally wedded-to-mundane-reality iteration which set the scene.

Here Jack Kirby’s genius for graphic wizardry and gift for dramatic staging mixed with Stan Lee’s manic melodrama to create a tough and tense series which the new writers and veteran artists that followed turned into a non-stop riot of action and suspense, with Steranko’s late arrival only hinting at the magic to come…

These epic early days of spycraft encompass Strange Tales #135-153 and Tales of Suspense #78, collectively covering August 1965 to February 1967 and guaranteeing timeless thrills for lovers of adventure and intrigue.

Following a little history lesson from Kirby scholar John Morrow in his Introduction, the main event starts with ST #135 as the Human Torch solo feature is summarily replaced by Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. – which back then stood for Supreme Headquarters International Espionage Law-enforcement Division

In the rocket-paced first episode, Fury is asked to volunteer for the most dangerous job in the world: leading a new counter-intelligence agency dedicated to stopping secretive subversive super-science organisation Hydra. With assassins dogging his every move, the Take-Charge Guy with the Can-Do Attitude quickly proves he is ‘The Man for the Job!’ in a potent twelve-page thriller from Lee, Kirby & Dick Ayers.

Even an artist and plotter of Kirby’s calibre couldn’t handle another strip at that busiest of times, so from the next issue “The King” cut back to laying out episodes, allowing a variety of superb draughtsmen to flesh out the adventures. Even so, there’s probably a stunning invention or cool concept on almost every page that follows…

‘Find Fury or Die!’ brought veteran draughtsman John Severin back to the company; pencilling and inking Kirby’s blueprints as the new Director becomes the target of incessant assassination attempts and we are introduced to masked maniac the Supreme Hydra

The tension ramps up for the next instalment as a number of contenders are introduced – any of whom might be the obscured overlord of evil – even as S.H.I.E.L.D. strives mightily but fails to stop Hydra launching its deadly Betatron Bomb in ‘The Prize is… Earth!’

Despite the restrictions of the Comics Code, these early S.H.I.E.L.D. stories were stark and grim and frequently carried a heavy body count. Four valiant agents died in quick succession in #137 and the next issue underscored the point in ‘Sometimes the Good Guys Lose!’ with further revelations of Hydra’s inner workings.

Fury and fellow Howling Commando war heroes Dum-Dum Dugan and Gabe Jones meanwhile played catch-up after Hydra assassins invade S.H.I.E.L.D.: almost eliminating Fury and munitions genius Tony Stark – the only man capable of destroying the nuclear sword of Damocles hanging over the world. Although Nick saves the inventor, he is captured in the process…

Tortured by Hydra in #139’s ‘The Brave Die Hard!’ (with Joe Sinnott replacing Severin as finisher), Fury finds an unlikely ally in Laura Brown: Supreme Hydra’s daughter and a young woman bitterly opposed to her father’s megalomaniacal madness.

Even with only half a comicbook per month to tell a tale, creators didn’t hang around in those halcyon days and #140 promised ‘The End of Hydra!’ (by Don Heck & Sinnott over Kirby) as a S.H.I.E.L.D. squad invades the enemy’s inner sanctum to rescue the already-free-and-making-mayhem Fury. In the meantime, Stark travels into space to remove the Betratron Bomb with his robotic Braino-Saur system. The end result leaves Hydra temporarily headless…

Strange Tales #141 has Kirby return to full pencils (inked by Frank Giacoia pseudonymously moonlighting as Frank Ray) for the mop-up before ‘Operation: Brain Blast!’ introduces Mentallo – a renegade from S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ESP division – who joins with technological savant the Fixer to attack the organisation as the first step in an ambitious scheme to rule the world.

The momentous raid begins in ‘Who Strikes at… S.H.I.E.L.D.?’ (illustrated by Kirby with Mike Demeo – AKA Esposito) with the deadly rogues hitting hard and fast: seizing and mind-controlling Fury before strapping him to a mini-H-bomb. With Howard Purcell & Esposito embellishing Kirby’s layouts, Dugan and the boys come blasting in ‘To Free a Brain Slave’ in #143…

A new and deadly threat emerges in #144 as ‘The Day of the Druid!’ as a mystic charlatan targets Fury and his agents with murderous flying techno-ovoids. Happily, new S.H.I.E.L.D. recruit Jasper Sitwell is on hand to augment the triumphant fightback in ‘Lo! The Eggs Shall Hatch!’ (finished by Heck & Esposito).

As Marvel continuity grew evermore interlinked, ‘Them!’ details a Captain America team-up for Fury in the first of the Star-Spangled Avenger’s many adventures as a (more-or-less) Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Taken from Tales of Suspense #78 (June 1966): scripted by Lee with Kirby full pencils and Giacoia inks, the story depicts the WWII wonders battling an artificial assassin with incredible chemical capabilities, after which Nick seeks the creature’s mysterious makers in Strange Tales #146, ‘When the Unliving Strike!’ (Kirby, Heck & Esposito).

Proclaiming themselves a technological Special Interests group, Advanced Idea Mechanics courts S.H.I.E.L.D.’s governmental and military masters, promising potent and incredible new weapons if only they sacked that barbaric slob Fury, but the surly supremo is getting close to exposing A.I.M.’s connection to “Them” and an old enemy thought long gone…

A concerted whispering campaign and “briefing-against” seemingly sees Fury ousted in ‘The Enemy Within!’ and put on trial in ‘Death Before Dishonor!’ (scripted by Kirby with Heck & Esposito finishing his layouts), but it’s all part of a cunning counter-plan which delivers a shattering conclusion and ‘The End of A.I.M.!’ in #149 (scripted by Denny O’Neil, with art by Kirby & Ogden Whitney).

Then, revealed by Lee, Kirby, John Buscema & Giacoia, a malign and devilishly subtle plan is finally exposed in Strange Tales #150 as Fury’s team puts together clues from all the year’s past clashes to come to one terrifying conclusion: ‘Hydra Lives!’

The shocking secret also hints at great events to come as newcomer Steranko assumes the finisher’s role over Lee & Kirby for ‘Overkill!’ with Fury targeted by the new Supreme Hydra who devises a cunning scheme to infiltrate America’s top security agency and use his enemy as the means of triggering global Armageddon…

Although the Good Guys seemingly thwart that scheme, ‘The Power of S.H.I.E.L.D.!’ is actually helpless to discern the villain’s real intent as this initial dossier of doom ends on a cliffhanger after ‘The Hiding Place!’ (ST #153 and scripted by Roy Thomas) closes with the arch villain comfortably ensconced in Fury’s inner circle and ready to destroy the organisation from within…

To Be Continued…

Although the S.H.I.E.L.D. saga stops here, there’s an added bonus still to enjoy: the aforementioned FF #21. This revealed Fury as a wily CIA agent seeking the team’s aid against a sinister demagogue called ‘The Hate-Monger’ (Lee & Kirby, inked by comics veteran George Roussos, under the protective nom-de-plume George Bell) just as the 1960s espionage vogue was taking off, inspired by James Bond films and TV shows like Danger Man.

Here Fury craftily manipulates Marvel’s First Family into invading a sovereign nation reeling in the throes of revolution in a yarn crackling with tension and action…

Fast, furious and fantastically entertaining, these high-octane vintage yarns are a superb snapshot of early Marvel Comics at their creative peak and should be part of every fanboy’s shelf of beloved favourites.

Don’t Yield! Back S.H.I.E.L.D.!
© 1965, 1966, 1967, 2018 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.